BY THIS TIME next year, Portland police may no longer be the city's front line for dealing with people in mental health crisis.

On the heels of three high-profile fatal police shootings of mentally ill Portlanders this year ["Another Mentally Ill Man Dead," News, May 20], the city and county approved $3 million in funding last week for a long-delayed mental health crisis center.

But there remains a giant hole in the crisis center's budget: operating costs. Mental health advocates fear that the sorely needed center could open with fanfare in summer 2011 only to downsize within a few years.

The 16-bed center will fill a gap in Portland's mental health treatment, seeing those people who are unstable but not severe enough to require hospital treatment. People in crisis can be sent to the center by the police or their mental health provider and remain in the locked ward anywhere from four to 14 days.

"What happens now, if you're in acute crisis, often you will go to jail," said County Chair Jeff Cogen after Portland City Council voted to approve the funds on Wednesday, June 16. "This will be the only place you can go if you're in crisis, but don't need to go to the hospital."

The recent shootings of Keaton Otis, Jack Collins, and Aaron Campbell were certainly on Cogen's mind as he testified to council about the need for the facility. "The context made a difference. The services the city and county provide aren't in a vacuum," said Cogen.

The center—which will reside inside Central City Concern's Hooper Detox building on NE MLK—will be funded three ways: $842,000 from the county, $1 million from the State of Oregon, and $2 million from Portland Development Commission.

But Mental Health Association of Portland advocate Jason Renaud is worried about keeping the center running once it's open. Crisis treatment is incredibly expensive, running about $1,000 per patient per day, says Renaud. The center is supposed to recoup a large portion of those costs from patients' health insurance, but many of its clients will likely be homeless and uninsured.

The need for the crisis center is obvious. The county's 24-hour crisis call-in center receives about 50,000 calls for help or resources every year.

Jennifer Dryer has answered calls on the crisis line for three years, fielding on average 20-30 calls during an eight-hour shift. She says homelessness is a recurring issue, and though she can recite a list of low-cost mental health providers, long wait lists often have people calling her back within minutes.

"They say, 'I can't wait four weeks for an appointment, I'm in trouble now!'" says Dryer. "I wish there were more resources for those people. They need to get their mental health in order before they can get a job or a home."